I want to verify my credit score. I received an email that said I can get it for free, but when I log in, they ask me for a credit card number. Is there any way I can get my credit score for free? – Nora
I think we've all received those “free credit score” email messages. Most are nothing more than random spam or, at worst, attempts to defraud you.
You see, credit scores are products, like cars and soft drinks. Companies that create the scores have an economic interest in their financial success. In other words, they want to get paid for what they developed. So if you want it, you'll probably have to pay for it (or at least for some other service that they offer).
There are many types of credit scores on the market, but the one that the majority of lenders use for qualification purposes is the FICO score, which was developed by Fair Isaac Corp. The FICO score algorithm takes all but the identification portions of a consumer's credit file, weighs that information and then translates it all into a number between 300 and 850. Higher scores indicate less lending risk, while lower numbers indicate greater lending risk. A score in the mid-700s or above is considered desirable.
Each of the credit bureaus that compile your credit reports — TransUnion, Experian and Equifax — generates its own FICO score. To get all three at once, you can go directly to MyFICO.com and order them for $19.95 each If you don't want to shell out nearly $60, you may choose to order just one, as the numbers should be fairly similar from one report to the other. The only reason they'd vary is if the data on them are different. This might happen if you have an account in collections, but the collection agency is reporting only to one or two of the credit bureaus. Whichever report doesn't list the ding will have a higher score because it won't be included in the calculation.
If you don't want to lay down any cash, you may opt for free credit score estimators. With these, you can get a general idea of how you're doing. FICO, for example, provides a free score estimator. You'll answer some questions about your payment history and credit accounts, and it will give you an approximation of your score.
Be aware that estimators rely on your accurate answers. It's easy to enter in wrong data. For example, you may think you have a perfect payment history but forgot that you missed a payment cycle last year while you were on vacation. Or you maybe you don't know your true balances because the accounts are jointly held and the other cardholder went on a spending spree and charged up to the limit.
You can prevent misinformation from mucking up the results by checking your credit reports before using an estimator. These you can get for free once a year, safely and with no strings attached from AnnualCreditReport.com. Doing so will also give you the opportunity to see if there are any errors that need correction.
There are other credit scores besides the FICO, and some of them are less expensive or even offered at no cost if you use the company's personal finance software or buy something else that it sells. Each scoring model will have different numbers associated with it, but in general, a good score is a good score. If one determines that your past credit use rates well, your FICO score is almost certainly in the excellent range, too.
Just be sure to use reputable businesses, especially when providing your personal information. If you got an offer by email prompting you to input your credit card number, it's probably spam or a scam. Ignore or report it.
Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.